You might expect to find Richard North Patterson, the best-selling author of so many meticulously researched thrillers, huddled in discreet conversation with an FBI agent in Washington, D.C., or interviewing an Israeli soldier on the narrow streets of Jerusalem.
But on Martha’s Vineyard, where Patterson has been a summer resident for two decades, the 66-year-old author begins his days more like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate,” floating in the pool behind his shingle-style home in the woods of West Tisbury, his head empty of the hot-button political issues and ideas that drive the plots of his novels.
“I couldn’t tell you what I think about on that raft. It’s just Zen,” he says. “It’s the way I am when I’m on the Vineyard. It’s low-key here, not like the Hamptons where people from New York go and replicate their anxious social lives on the weekend.”
Patterson’s appreciation for Martha’s Vineyard and its rhythms is evident in his new book, “Loss of Innocence.” The novel, a family drama set on the island, is a departure for an author known for page-turners with plots that span the globe and grapple with topics like gun control, presidential politics, and terrorism. In his new novel, his 21st, Patterson forsakes the formula that helped him sell more than 25 million copies, and aims for something else.
“I’m at a point where I don’t have to give a damn whether a book sells, or what the publisher wants me to do,” he says, surrounded in his second-floor office by framed book jackets and photos of himself with famous friends. “I’m in the happy position of writing without regard to anything other than what I think I can turn into a book I’d be proud of.”
He is proud of the new one, which comes out Tuesday. (Patterson will read from “Loss of Innocence” that night at the Boston Public Library.) The second in a trilogy, the novel is a story of romance and betrayal set in 1968. It is told from the point of view of a young woman, a first for Patterson, whose novels often deal with women’s issues — abortion, rape, family violence — but have always been narrated by men. The author asked feminist thinkers Gloria Steinem and Carol Gilligan to read “Loss of Innocence” for authenticity, and both wrote blurbs for the book.
“I’m grateful. It makes me feel like I’ve done what I set out to do — to realistically portray a young woman at the cusp of change in her life, and dramatic changes in the country,” says Patterson, putting his feet up on his desk. “It was also sort of interesting to write sex scenes from the standpoint of a 21-year-old woman.”
He has a habit of trying something new. Before he was a successful writer, Patterson was a successful lawyer, a partner in the San Francisco office of the firm that is now Bingham McCutchen. He wrote four novels in the 1980s but stopped to focus on work and family. The novels were “successes of esteem,” he says, not of sales. In 1993, however, with the public appetite for legal thrillers whetted by Scott Turow and John Grisham, Patterson returned with “Degree of Guilt,” which was promoted aggressively by his publisher.
“My initial reaction was guilt. There were 200,000 copies of this thing out there and I wondered who was going to buy them,” he recalls. “I seriously went into a couple of stores and bought the book before I realized, quite sanely, that 200,000 copies was a bigger problem than I could dispose of and somebody else was going to have to buy them.”
A character-driven courtroom thriller, “Degree of Guilt” became an enormous best-seller. Among its many fans was George H.W. Bush, who sent Patterson a note asking if the author would inscribe a copy for him. The correspondence kindled a friendship with the former president and his wife, Barbara, that continues today.
The novel’s popularity also enabled Patterson to quit practicing law and embark on a career as a full-time writer. Or carpenter, as he sees it. Patterson does not write books as much as he builds them. He starts with a compelling idea for a story and then does the reporting — he calls it “the architecture” — needed to tell it convincingly.
“Ric constructs novels in a methodical way, as befits a onetime lawyer,” says journalist Jeff Greenfield, a friend of Patterson’s who spends a week with the author on Martha’s Vineyard every summer. “If he’s writing about gun control, he’ll talk to someone with the NRA, the cops, gun-control people. If it’s Israel, he’ll talk to moderate Palestinians, radical Palestinians, an Israeli settler.”
Patterson is not shy about who he approaches for an interview. While preparing to write “Protect and Defend,” a novel about a Supreme Court nominee who gets embroiled in the abortion debate because she has a child out of wedlock, Patterson talked to both Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate majority leader, and President Clinton. He wanted a sense of the behind-the-scenes push and pull of the nomination process.
“I said, ‘OK, if you were determined to save this nominee by any means, what would you do?’ ” Patterson says. “It’s all in the book. I walked out of the White House and thought, ‘I have the coolest job on the planet.’ ”
For his new novel, he sat down with 10 women who graduated from Wheaton College in 1968, and asked them to talk candidly about their views at the time on sex, birth control, race, and class. For political context, Patterson talked to Greenfield, who had been a speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy during Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. And he spoke with Martha’s Vineyard residents who remember what the island was like before the ultra rich started building McMansions.
“I don’t think people on an island this precious ought to be building anything bigger than what they need,” he says.
Patterson came to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time in the early 1990s and the relaxed pace suited him. Tall and fit with hair cut in a youthful shag Patterson tends to move slowly, nothing like his breathless, on-the-brink characters. His house on the island is not small — he has a guest cottage where friends, including Greenfield, journalist Joe Klein, and Senator Barbara Boxer of California stay when they visit — to accommodate his large family. Patterson has been married four times and, through what he calls a “series of mergers and acquisitions,” has five children ranging in age from 19 to 42.
For the last five years, he has been married to Nancy Clair, an educational consultant whose work focuses on urban schools in the United States and in developing countries. The couple met on Martha’s Vineyard while Patterson was still married to his third wife, and their romance caused something of a kerfuffle on the island.
“I prefer to leave that one alone,” he says, stiffening slightly before looking away.
Patterson is not a regular on the Vineyard social circuit in the summer. He eschews the porch at the Chilmark General Store, where the likes of Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, millionaire malpractice lawyer Alex MacDonald, and restaurateur Patrick Lyons often pass the lunch hour. And you will not find him hobnobbing at a catered cocktail party beside an infinity pool.
“I’ve been known to say, upon leaving a place I regret going, ‘I’m an hour closer to death and for what?’ After Woody Allen, I’m probably the most afraid-of-death person,” says Patterson, whose hair is the color of late-summer dune grass. “I don’t care about being seen on the Vineyard. That’s not why I’m here.”
Instead, he and his wife prefer quiet dinners with friends and neighbors, who include Ward Just, author of “An Unfinished Season” and “Echo House,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers Tony Horwitz and his wife, Geraldine Brooks.
“That’s the real pleasure of this island in the summer. You can sit outside and have dinner with four or five people,” says Just. “Ric and I don’t talk much about writing, or, should I say, the current disappointment we’re working on. He knows a lot of political people and I used to report on politics 100 years ago, so we talk more politics than we do literature.”
Patterson does know a lot of political people. Senator John McCain of Arizona, former US defense secretary Bill Cohen, and Vicki Kennedy, widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, are all friends. And Boxer, who introduced herself to the author after reading an oped piece he wrote during the Clinton impeachment hearings, officiated Patterson and Clair’s wedding at writer Linda Fairstein’s hard-to-find house in Chilmark.
“I got lost because there were no signs and it’s the Vineyard so my cellphone didn’t work. I was out of breath when I walked in,” says Boxer, who consulted Patterson before writing her 2005 novel, “A Time to Run.”
“Sometimes, successful people only want to talk about themselves. But Ric has been tremendously supportive. He wanted to send me his new book, but knowing how hard it is to write these things, I said no. I’m going to buy it.”
In San Francisco, where Patterson lives during the rest of the year, he is at his desk every morning at 7:30, and writes until noon. Not on Martha’s Vineyard, where he starts the day floating in the pool, followed by a short workout in his basement gym and maybe a round of golf at Farm Neck Golf Club.
“If I’m a good boy during the other nine months, I get to enjoy my time here,” he says.
Greenfield says his friend seems contented these days, but continues to push himself professionally.
“This new novel is an act of courage. Ric’s had a string of best-selling thrillers and he’s walking away from that to do more interior novels,” says Greenfield. “For a writer who has a large, built-in audience, that’s a major step.”
Asked if he risks losing readers by taking a different tack, Patterson leans back in his chair and smiles.
“As I say about death, there’s no future in it and it lasts for a very long time, so do what you want,” he says. “And I am.”